Commentary Magazine


The University: An Owner's Manual, by Henry Rosovsky

This a cozy book and is meant to be. The former dean and now once again acting dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences adopts a humorous, relentlessly self-deprecating manner, tells us many anecdotes from his own career in higher education, and gives us the benefit of his experience and wisdom about such diverse topics as “deaning,” tenure, faculty life, what graduate students should watch out for, and how prospective undergraduates should select a college. But the real object, one feels, is to reassure a restless public grown skeptical, even surly, about the rising costs and declining quality of higher education. “That I have written a positive book about universities,” Rosovsky confesses or boasts in the concluding chapter, “is most unusual.”

Unfortunately, Rosovsky’s idea of an “owner’s manual” works against his apparent interest in defending higher education from its critics. Very properly, he conceives of “ownership” broadly, as including (his own list) faculty, administrators, students, trustees, alumni, donors, government, the press, and the general public; yet the chapters he devotes to topics that interest certain of these groups but not others leave him little room to discuss those issues, recently become prominent, that are of interest to us all.

Nor is Rosovsky always helpful to those with more limited interests. This is particularly true of the chapter on how to choose an undergraduate college—which is little more than special pleading for Harvard and the handful of other top-flight research universities. Rosovsky gives good reasons why the qualified student should choose to study with active and leading scholars; he is less convincing on the question of whether teaching assistants—who are the faculty such a student usually encounters—are a reasonable substitute. In any case, his defense of the research/teaching nexus does not extend to the majority of research universities, where most research, except in the natural sciences, is second-rate and the teaching is correspondingly sterile.

Most prospective freshmen do not have the option of turning Harvard down. For them, this chapter is at best useless, at worst misleading. Until college guides are produced that actually tell something about the quality of the education one can obtain at specific institutions, those in need of guidance are better advised to read Thomas Sowell’s Choosing a College (Harper & Row, 1989). Sowell’s book, which is everything Rosovsky’s chapter is not, is built on the premise that different students need schools of different sorts; it tells how to determine whether a curriculum is politicized, whether unpopular views are suppressed, or conventional morality is scorned, and it is particularly effective in alerting black students to schools in which they will often be counted, less often educated.

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Let us turn, then, to the topic of general interest: what, apart from his mellow tone and the pleasant picture he paints of life in Harvard Yard, does Rosovsky have to say in response to the critics of American higher education? The answer is much less than the publisher’s promotional literature and the back-cover blurbs would have us believe. In one such blurb, the current president of Duke University lauds Rosovsky for “taking on” Allan Bloom, E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and William J. Bennett. That is peculiar since Hirsch and Bennett are barely mentioned, while Bloom’s views are discussed in all of two paragraphs. And the “taking on” is very thin stuff indeed. Bloom has pointed out, for instance, that the idea of universal truths is Western in origin, which explains our interest in testing our own values against those of other cultures. To this Rosovsky ludicrously responds that Bloom considers ethnocentrism to be a non-Western monopoly.

The discussion of Bloom, such as it is, occurs in a chapter on Harvard’s core curriculum, for the development of which Rosovsky, more than any other one person, is responsible. Harvard’s core requires students to take about a year’s worth of courses in six areas: literature and arts, science, history, social analysis, foreign cultures, moral reasoning. The courses cover no prescribed content; the idea is to introduce students to “approaches to knowledge,” hence, methods. “Can one,” Rosovsky asks, “graduate from Harvard without reading Shakespeare?” “Yes,” he answers, but not “without reading literary classics.” Sounds good. But is there in fact any check on how specialized these courses can become? According to one report, the literature and arts requirement can be satisfied by the following courses: “Beast Literature,” “Monuments of Japan,” and “The Celtic Heroic Age.” As William Bennett has said, “There is an extraordinary gap between the rhetoric and the reality of American higher education.”

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On what basis, then, can it be claimed, as Rosovsky does, that the top fifty research universities in the United States include “two-thirds of the world’s best”? The answer is that they are only so with respect to graduate training and research. Foreign students flock to our graduate departments, especially in economics, engineering, and the natural sciences, taking places unfilled by less well-educated, less hardworking American students. Our research powerhouses are the nation’s glory, and an engine of progress throughout the world; but they are no answer to criticisms of American undergraduate education.

Nor does prowess in the “hard” sciences mitigate the deepening disaster in the humanities and social sciences (economics excepted), where “research”-excellent, good, mediocre, and execrable-piles up in unread heaps, and where the fashions that most influence undergraduate teaching have been veering for some time toward an anti-intellectual and anti-democratic irrationalism. The future leaders of our society will not come out of our graduate schools, or at least their values will not be formed by the technical studies in which our graduate schools excel. Instead, worse luck, they will be products of today’s simulacrum of liberal education.

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I should not like to leave the impression that there is nothing of value in this book. It contains some sage reflections on such topics as tenure and university governance. Rosovsky makes a convincing argument that the superiority of American universities in graduate education and research is a result of the competition that prevails among them. Elsewhere, uniform standards and centralized, state control (as in France), or an absence of regional rivalries and the secure preeminence of a few (as in Great Britain), result in stagnation. There is nevertheless a problem, Rosovsky says, of accountability. Though he defends the tenure system, he wishes to make professors more accountable to administrators. I agree, although to my mind a much greater problem is the lack of accountability of administrators to the taxpayers and tuition-payers who support so much of higher education’s cost.

How can accountability be increased? Rosovsky, in yet another attempt to dismiss “conservative” critics, claims that American colleges and universities operate in a free market: “Is the market,” he asks, “not their [conservatives'] idea of a perfect referee?” This ignores the enormous role of state universities and the fact that most of their students can ill afford to go elsewhere. More importantly, free markets depend on the availability of accurate, relevant information of a kind that will enable people to make reasonable choices. In the case of higher education, that is precisely what the public is not getting.

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